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Written by: Avikar Chunilall (Horticulturist)
Common names: Elephant's Food (English). Spekboom or Olifantskos (Afrikaans); iNtelezi, isiDondwane, isAmbilane, (isiZulu); iGqwanitsha (isiXhosa).
Portulacaria afra or better known as Spekboom is a common succulent garden plant used around the world and one of Bidvest Top Turf’s favourite species to use in our gardens. It’s an evergreen shrub or small tree which can grow up to 2 to 5m in height, in most gardens it grows up to 1,5 to 2m normally. It is found in karroid (poor soil) areas and the bushveld of KwaZulu-Natal, Swaziland, Mpumalanga and the Limpopo Province as well as Mozambique.
The bark is smooth and hairless, usually green on young plants, which eventually becomes glossy / waxy red-brown. Young Branches are brittle and break easily. It has succulent like leaves which are simple leaflets, which are opposite each other forming small clumps. They produce small star like flowers which are pale pink from late winter to spring. The flowers are a rich source of nectar for many insects, which will also attract insect eating birds, making this a good addition to any Pollinator Garden.
The leaves of the isiDondwane can be eaten and have a sour or tart flavour, but changes throughout as the sun rises or sets. It is heavily browsed by game and domestic stock and highly favoured by tortoises. It has a lot of traditional purposes like sucking a leaf to quench thirst and dehydration, leaves are crushed to use for sunburn, rashes and insect stings.
This succulent plant grows fairly quickly and can be closely planted to form a hedge, used as an ornamental succulent tree for a rockery, or planted to check soil erosion. It makes a beautiful bonsai or a great potted plant. It can be planted in a large container on a sunny patio.
Spekboom is easily grown from tip cuttings or truncheons that roots easily and can even be planted directly into the ground.
What makes this such a special plant? It helps fight climate change and air pollution. It helps to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by acting like a carbon sponge, improving the quality of air we breathe. In turn, it uses carbon to make plant tissue and produce oxygen. This remarkable plant is unique in that it stores solar energy to perform photosynthesis at night and a surprisingly fact is that a plant can live up to 200 years.
At Bidvest Top Turf, Portulacaria afra is often used in our landscape installations, and we love introducing it to our clients where we perform Landscape Maintenance.
You can do your part in the fight against global warming by simply planting a Spekboom plant in your garden. This simple act will help to make the world a better place!!!